by Daniel González - Oct. 27, 2012 11:01 PM
The Republic |

Despite years of complaints from U.S. Border Patrol agents, the federal government has failed to eliminate radio "dead spots" where agents suddenly lose contact with each other.

That loss of communication can create a dangerous situation and most often occurs in remote mountainous areas similar to the area where Agent Nicholas Ivie was killed by friendly fire this month.

A source close to the investigation of the Oct. 2 shooting told The Arizona Republic that Ivie and two other agents lost radio contact immediately before they exchanged fire as they responded from separate directions to a tripped ground sensor in southeastern Arizona near the U.S.-Mexican border.

It is unclear whether radio contact was lost because the agents encountered a dead spot. The shooting occurred about 6 miles east of Bisbee and within a few miles of the border.

The problem of lost radio contact has persisted even though the government has spent millions of dollars upgrading the radio-communication system used by the Border Patrol, according to Border Patrol communications officials and union representatives.

"You get dead spots and you just don't have any way to communicate with anybody," said Art Del Cueto, president of the Border Patrol union representing agents in the Tucson Sector, which covers the area where Ivie was killed. A second agent was wounded in the shooting.

Del Cueto said agents have difficulty communicating in valleys and ravines because there are not enough repeater towers to adequately boost radio signals.

Acting Cochise County Sheriff Rod Rothrock said the agents had communicated with each other and were aware they were in the same area. He said he does not know if they lost radio communication prior to the shooting, but the geography in the area is conducive to dead spots.

"It is pretty hilly terrain, and I could see how that could happen -- if you are between some hills or down in a low spot, your signal might not be able to hit a repeater," Rothrock said. "They met each other in a saddle between mountains, and that very well could have equated to a dead spot, but I don't know if that occurred."

The FBI and the Cochise County Sheriff's Office have not completed their investigation. Rothrock said his office's report may be ready this week. Neither he nor the FBI would disclose details of their findings.

Del Cueto, who is assigned to the Border Patrol's Casa Grande station, said agents frequently encounter dead spots.

"It's not that it happens every single day, but I have (experienced) countless amounts of times where I have been out there in the desert and I have been in an area where I've called on my service radio and I just don't get out," he said.

He recalled an incident two years ago while he was working alone on the Tohono O'odham Reservation and was assaulted by three illegal immigrants trying to flee into Mexico. One of them threw a 40-ounce beer bottle loaded with sand and hit him in the neck and shoulder, injuring him. When Del Cueto tried to call for help, "they couldn't pick up my radio signal."

Del Cueto said he had to walk a quarter-mile before he was able to contact other agents on his radio.

Del Cueto said environmental restrictions as well as funding have limited the number of repeaters.

"We've said often we need more coverage, and when we've spoken to the people who are in charge of the repeaters and said, 'We need to get more repeaters,' they've said, "We can't do it right now,' " Del Cueto said. "There hasn't been a clear-cut (answer for) 'Why can't you do it?' "

A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson issued a statement saying, "Border Patrol agents' use of technology and communication equipment is an important capability for CBP, combined with other state of the art technologies and age-old methods. Like all communications platforms, factors such as terrain, weather, location and proximity to structures can have an impact and these capabilities are continually being monitored, reviewed and improved."

But the agency did not respond to questions asking how much money CBP has spent on the new radio-communications system.

In 2009, Congress designated $60 million as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to buy and distribute new radios and communications equipment used by nearly 40,000 U.S. Customs and Border Protection law-enforcement officers, including more than 20,000 Border Patrol agents.

But the entire cost of the project is believed to be much higher.

The new system replaced repeaters as well as antiquated radios that dated to the 1970s and 1980s and often left "critical coverage gaps," according to a May 2009 CBP report. "Many agents and officers work in remote areas where commercial communications do not exist and their radios are their only connection to colleagues and headquarters," the report said.

As part of the borderwide upgrade, 215 new repeaters were installed in the Tucson and Yuma sectors in Arizona, according to an August 2010 article in Mission Critical Communications, a trade magazine.

About 20 percent of the repeater sites in Arizona are so remote, they can only be accessed by helicopter or long drives over dangerous desert and mountain terrains, the article said.

The article was written by William Brown, CEO of Metric Systems Corp., which supplied the computer-data network for the new system.

In an interview, Brown said a repeater site can cost anywhere from $100,000 to several million dollars, including equipment and installation, depending on the remoteness of the location.

U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, whose district includes southeastern Arizona and who is a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he has heard from many Border Patrol agents about problems communicating with each other by radio in remote areas.

"I've heard it from both agents as well as people who live in the area who are not directly associated with the Border Patrol, that more repeaters would really be a big step in the right direction to help with communication," he said.

He plans to raise the issue with the Department of Homeland Security.

"Budgets are tight everywhere, but this is a must because it improves communication, which leads to improved safety and security for the very people we are asking to patrol a potentially very violent area because of the cartels," Barber said. "People have told me before that when they go into the canyons and they go into the ravines, they often cannot communicate effectively with each other. Whatever we have to do to improve, if not solve, this problem completely we need to do."

In March, a supervisory Border Patrol agent told industry experts that Border Patrol agents sometimes can't communicate with each other despite having the latest digital radio technology.

"Even though we currently have the best radio communications in the history of the Border Patrol, we still face some challenges," said Orlando Rocafort, a supervisory agent in charge of the Tucson Sector's radio-communications system. He spoke on a panel at a meeting in Tucson of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, an industry group.

Rocafort said radio communication operates on "line of sight" and is dependent on repeater towers for agents in the field to communicate with other agents. "If there is no line of sight to a repeater, an agent in the field might not be able to communicate with any ground- or air-based assets in that area," Rocafort said.

In 2005, Rocafort said, he stepped into a deep animal hole and broke his ankle while tracking a group of possible drug smugglers. He said he tried to call for help on his radio but no one could hear him.

The hills were blocking the radio's "line of sight" to the repeaters in the area. As a result, he had to use his personal cellphone to contact other agents.

Rocafort said the same problems exist despite the new radios.

Border Patrol agents also still can't communicate with some other law-enforcement agencies or with police in Mexico, he said. Agents also can't send pictures, videos or biometric information, he said.

Rocafort also said the Border Patrol's radio-communication system has been hamstrung by budget constraints, and drug cartels in Mexico often have better radio-communication systems.

"A lot of the technology advances that law-enforcement agencies use today is also exploited by the criminal elements," Rocafort said. "The illegal entities on the south side have unlimited funding and resources."

Rocafort said the Mexican military recently seized a communication system being used by a drug-trafficking organization to communicate over four Mexican states that included 74 repeaters, 91 antennas, 97 power sources and 791 radios.

"This equipment belonged to only one DTO out of the many that are operating on the south side, and I guarantee you that this disruption was very minimal to their operations," Rocafort said.